It isn’t new. It’s something which large oil companies in particular have long been able to do. If you own the whole supply chain from exploration through to retail, vesting different parts of it in different companies based in different countries but within the same group allows you to set transfer prices in a way which generates the ‘profits’ in the most favourable jurisdiction.
What Starbucks and the others have been doing is simply a variation on that. And the main thing that they’ve done differently is to be greedy – wiser companies have taken advantage of the rule in a more moderate fashion which leaves them paying something to everyone.
The recent stories have also highlighted another factor – the use of nameplate companies. These are companies, set up in low tax jurisdictions, which don’t do anything very much other than act as a repository for profit, and a means of avoiding tax. Ireland has been doing a bit of that of late; setting a low rate of company taxation has encouraged companies to set up nameplate companies in Ireland. Ireland has gained, the companies have gained – it’s just the rest of us who’ve lost.
It underlines the danger of seeing company taxation as a competitive tool, and potentially gives ammunition to those keen to avoid devolution of Corporation Tax in the UK. A race to the bottom might generate local benefits, but those benefits are not always based on real economic activity. A race to the bottom helps no-one in the end.
What’s noticeably absent from the Starbucks statement is any commitment to change their accounting practices in the long term. The PR that they’re getting from this gesture is good; but there’s no sign that they are really going to change. They also haven’t given, a far as I’m aware, any commitment that they won’t simply use the tax paid ‘voluntarily’ over the next two years to offset any taxes which might become due in future years; something which they’re perfectly entitled to do.
Since none of the companies concerned have actually done anything illegal – indeed, they are under a legal obligation to maximise shareholder value – it’s unrealistic to expect any great change in behaviour unless the legal framework in which they operate is changed. The government is showing little sign of any willingness to tackle that issue. Again, that’s not really surprising – looked at as purely a tax collection issue, it’s hard to see what they could do effectively.
But what if we looked at the issue more widely? Why does the law say that companies are obliged to maximise shareholder value (within the law, naturally) regardless of the interests of other stakeholders? Setting the interests of capital above other interests might be a reflection of where we are; but there’s nothing inevitable about that. We can order things differently if we wish. It’s not a proposal I’d expect from the current government – but I’m not hearing it from any of the opposition parties either. Why are they all so wedded to the rule of capital?